Why Family Stories?

Why Family Stories?

“Pay Attention to the fairy godmother” is my current motto. It’s a twist on Cinderella. When my grandmother got to the end of that classic tale, she always paused and added, “We like the prince. There’s nothing nicer than a fine, handsome prince, but you need to pay attention to the fairy godmother. She’s the one who got things done.”

I amused myself thinking she meant women, like herself, older and largely unappreciated. I thought good for her, we all need to get a dig in whenever we can. I’ve since changed my mind. I think “pay attention to the fairy godmother” means notice how your family tells their stories. Turn those tales inside out, the way grandma did, and really look at what they’re saying, because, more than likely, your life has been shaped by the stories you heard.

Who knew? I didn’t. I thought I was living my life, my way. I’d left home when I was nineteen, and I’ve never lived closer than a thousand miles since. I was my own woman making my own decisions, too busy–far too busy–to wonder why I thought a thousand miles insulated me from stories I’d heard a thousand times. Truth is, most of us shrug off the family stories, not only because they’re just stories, but because they’re the same old stories. We think we know them until we ask: Why that story? Why that story told that way?

Unless we pause to ask those questions, we may find ourselves trying to live the story we’ve always heard. In my family we tell great love stories. Listen long enough and you might spend your whole life waiting to be swept off your feet.


Stories get better with time. Families exaggerate because they want the stories to be remembered. Pay attention. The whoppers contain clues as to what the family thinks is important. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree; never said “I cannot tell a lie.” So why, as an American family, do we keep telling that story? When we stop telling it, what has changed?

Stories have voices. If all our stories are about hardship, we may not be able to hear good news. If our stories are about old hurts, we feel a duty to right old wrongs. Old hatreds are passed along the same way.

Stories are slogans. “In our family we ___________” is a sentence most of us can complete. Question is, who decides how to fill in that blank?

If you come from a family of war heroes, does it become unthinkable to not put on a uniform? If you come from a family that goes to college, is becoming a plumber an option or a failure?

Giving a new twist to an old story can make a huge difference. Have you examined your family stories lately?

Are Stories Important?

In her book The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher gives advice on rebuilding troubled families.

She gives an example of a family reunion where the youngsters are given a video to watch in the back room so the adults can talk undisturbed. Dr. Pipher believes this diversion actually deprives kids. Children need to mix with the older generation so they can hear the stories of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and parents.

“To be a person is to have a story to tell.”
–Isak Dinesen

In the book, What’s Your Story: Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People, and Brands, Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker advise business leaders to mind their story.

“Storytelling has the power to change the destiny of a company, an industry, a nation, and–ultimately–the world. It’s a force as powerful and universal as gravity and, sadly, often almost as invisible to the people it impacts.”

Since 2003, tens of thousands of everyday people have interviewed family and friends through the efforts of StoryCorps. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to take home and share, and is archived at the Library of Congress. Some of the stories are broadcasts on public radio and the Internet. StoryCorps claims to be the largest oral history project of its kind, creating a growing portrait of who we really are as Americans. Many of the stories on their blog share a common theme: that storytelling changes lives.


In his book, The Healing Power of Stories, Daniel Taylor suggests that the right story can make all the difference.

“If your present life story is broken or diseased, it can be made well. Or, if necessary, it can be replaced by a story that has a plot worth living. Our greatest desire, greater even than the desire for happiness, is that our lives mean something. This desire for meaning is the originating impulse of story. We tell stories because we hope to find or create significant connections between things. Stories link past, present, and future in a way that tells us where we have been (even before we were born), where we are, and where we are going.”

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

–Willa Cather

Need one more reason to investigate your family stories? It’s an Adventure–you never know what you’ll find! Pirates! My ancestorial home, a Danish island, was a Viking stronghold.